The United States is now number one in the world in terms of economy and military power. However, since this country was founded just more than two hundred years ago, it can never be said to be one with a long history. To compensate for this intrinsic disadvantage, the US began to import a lot of European culture in the 19th century, and it never rejected any artist, writer or musician. In addition to that, American rich merchants made good use of their vast wealth to buy and import many artworks by European masters and exhibit them in newly-built museums. The establishment of the Philharmonic Society of New York in 1842 (which later became the New York Philharmonic) is the best proof of the efforts made by the US to promote musical culture. Later, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1881), the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1891), the Philadelphia Orchestra (1900) and the Cleveland Orchestra (1918) were successively founded. The Big Five orchestras paid generous salaries to European musicians and conductors, triggering an influx of musicians into the US, which included such renowned composers as Dvořák and Mahler.
Although culture, art and music flourished in the States in the early 20th century thanks to foreign imports, the country was hoping to produce its own homegrown culturati to compete with Europe. In the musical world, the appearance of Leonard Bernstein brought the first light to this hope. Bernstein was born in Massachusetts in 1918. His father was a merchant, and his body was flowing with Jewish blood. Since early childhood, Bernstein showed considerable musical ability and was especially fond of the piano. He entered Harvard University to study music after graduating from high school. At Harvard he chanced upon the great conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and became interested in conducting. Though never having had the opportunity to be instructed by the maestro himself, Bernstein was deeply influenced by Mitropoulos and eventually decided to make conducting his career. At Harvard Bernstein also met another musician who influenced his life – the famous composer Aaron Copland, whose works inspired the creative direction and style of Bernstein, who even commented that only Copland could be said to be his real composing mentor.
After leaving Harvard, Bernstein went to the Curtis Institute of Music to further his studies. There, he learned conducting from Fritz Reiner, who was famous for being stern. Bernstein regarded Reiner as his lifetime mentor. After graduating from Curtis, Bernstein was lucky enough to be appointed assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. One day, Bernstein replaced Bruno Walter as the conductor of a concert at short notice when the latter suffered from the flu. This shot Bernstein to instant fame, and the US finally found a locally-educated homegrown “America's son”. Bernstein's career became extremely smooth since then, and he even became the long-desired Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1957, as well as often conducting various orchestras in and outside the country. Besides conducting, Bernstein also participated in works that taught young people about music appreciation, and led his orchestra to produce a series of fifty-three televised concerts. He also often appeared in television programmes, which made him a household name in the US.
Besides being a conductor, Bernstein is also well-known as a composer. He started composing music when he became a conductor, and he had always seized opportunities to present his own works when he conducted concerts. Bernstein's composing style integrated different musical features, such as romanticism, jazz, musicals and various kinds of popular music. The melodies that he wrote were easy to remember and much loved by fans. All these features can be found in his magnum opus: West Side Story.